Piano Playing Robot Claims to be First of Its Kind…But It’s 27 Years Too Late (video)

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Piano playing robots
Hiwin's robot pianist is cool, but not 'first'.

When it comes to technology, there really needs to be a ban on claiming to be the ‘First’, or at least a really good review committee. Hiwin Technologies unveiled their new piano playing robot at the Taipei International Robot Show (TIROS) last year and went on to demonstrate it again at the Japan International Machine Tool Fair a few weeks later. Normally I’d praise a company that uses advanced robotics to showcase their tangentially related products (Hiwin sells ball screws, linear motors, and other such industrial equipment). However, as reported by Taiwan’s Central News Agency and other news channels, Hiwin unfortunately claimed that their pianobot was the first to use 10 fingers to play the piano! Not only have we had automated pianos for centuries, we’ve had 10 fingered robots tickling the ivories since 1984. Check out the video evidence below. Overbearing hype is a sad reality when it comes to technology, but it can’t completely erase the joy I feel when I see robots playing piano.

Here’s a quick look at Hiwin’s piano playing robot in action at TIROS. Sorry for the brevity!

” ‘Up to now, other types of robots have used only one finger to play the piano,’ Enid Tsai, spokeswoman for Hiwin Technologies Corp., told CNA.

‘Our robot uses 10 fingers and can play a complex melody,’ she said, noting that it was the first in the world to do so. ” —Focus Taiwain 2010.

Clearly you can’t make claims like that without setting off a few buzzers. Maybe there is some technicality that makes the second statement more meangingful (perhaps Hiwin’s robot has some specifically impressive abilities to make complex music, though I doubt it), but the first statement is just pure bullsh*t. Sure, there are some robots out there that use just one finger to play the piano, but those are models built from kits. As writers at PlasticPals, CNet and other outlets have pointed out, Hiwin’s claims are flying in the face of some really prominent robot projects, most famously WABOT-2. That robot, produced in Japan, could not only play an electric organ with both hands, it used its feet to hit the pedals, read music, and harmonized with human voices…and this was back in 1984! Someone should have shown Hiwin the following clip of WABOT-2 in action:

Ahh…that bit of retro robot goodness has diffused my frustration with Hiwin. Look, making claims about being first is a great PR move, people love to see the first anything. But in this case it was just a bad choice of focus. The real emphasis should have been on how Hiwin’s actuators and ballscrews, etc helped make its piano bot possible. Afterall, we don’t make robots play piano because that’s the best way to automate the instrument – it’s clearly not. We teach robots to play music because it showcases their talents. Talents that could be used in more productive endeavors. That’s the strategy Toyota pursues with their violin and trumpet robots, and it’s probably what Hiwin should have done as well. Not, “we’re the first to make a complex 10 fingered piano robot” but “our 10 fingered piano robot shows how versatile our industrial machine parts can be.”

Even if Hiwin committed a faux pas with promoting its piano bot, I’ll still give them respect for creating the robot in the first place. I love the field of musical robotics, and it really has become a field. We’ve seen famous musicians use robotic machines to create their own backup band, while other artists experiment with improvising music through robots, and still others compose for entirely new robotic acoustic instruments. These kinds of projects never fail to keep me interested whether they are used to showcase the talents of big corporations, to help musicians explore new concepts, or simply to demonstrate how cool robot music can be. I think I’ll leave you with a video by Teotronica, an Italian company that has a robot pianist they rent out for exhibition purposes. I love this clip because it is the first time anyone has ever combined robots and holograms. (HA! Just kidding! …But, still, it’s a good video.)

[image credits: Focus Taiwan]

[sources: Focus Taiwan]